The dead who are housed in the huge circular tomb at Amphipolis may lie at rest, but they seem determined not to allow others to do so. An announcement this week from the archaeological authority handling the dig, in northwest Greece—the territory once occupied by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire—has aroused intense speculation among scholars and antiquarians, and has multiplied the already vexing problem of the tomb’s purpose by a factor of five.
Five, it turns out, is the number of individuals represented in the hundreds of bones recovered from a grave underlying the tomb’s main chambers. Painstaking work has identified these as a woman older than 60, two men aged about 45 and 35, an infant of indeterminate gender, and another adult, age and gender both indeterminate, whose body, unlike those of the other four, was cremated before burial. Intriguingly, the bones of the younger male reveal distinct blade marks in several locations, and experts claim that the wounds were fatal (since no signs of healing can be detected). Evidently, a brutal attack preceded this man’s 2,300-year-long slumber.
As my Twitter feed reveals, historical sleuths have been racking their brains over the last few days seeking a group of notables that would fit this multigenerational “family.” It has been the hope of many that some close friend or relative of Alexander himself would emerge from the tomb’s vast circumference, since the structure’s apparent date, the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., coincides closely with the era of Alexander’s death. Certainly, plenty of Macedonian leaders became corpses in the turmoil of that era, when a vast empire, stretching from modern Albania to western Pakistan, was rendered leaderless by Alexander’s sudden and unforeseen death. But so far, no match has turned up.
The age assigned to the female skeleton briefly gave hope to the group I call the Olympiasts, those who have been rooting for Alexander’s mother Olympias to emerge from the finds. Olympias could conceivably have been over 60 at the time of her death (her birth year is not known with precision), and she had close links with Amphipolis. But, as her more level-headed fans have noted, Olympias had no middle-aged male relatives, and certainly no infant kin, who might have been buried with her. And, as one Olympiast grimly observed, we would not expect the cranium of a queen who was executed by stoning to be as intact as this one is.
The marks of violence on the bones of the 35-year-old man have excited a different cheering section: those rooting for Philip III, a half-brother of Alexander who became king despite a cognitive disability (the royal house being at this time woefully short of heirs). Philip died in a political overthrow in 316 B.C. when he was approximately 35. But, our sources tell us that Philip was not stabbed but starved to death (by Olympias, his stepmother), and moreover was buried with full honors after another putsch had brought his partisans to power. Such a royal burial could only have taken place in Aegae, the ancient Macedonian capital (modern Vergina), and indeed a tomb discovered there in the 1970’s is thought by some to be his (but that’s another story).
It may be a long time before this “Amphipolis CSI” mystery yields a resolution. But whatever the outcome, the intensity of the forensic quest is fascinating in itself. It seems clear that these bones, especially the ones marked by blades, have created a more direct link to the past than any vase or marble statue. Here is a snapshot in time, the vivid truth of what one individual suffered, at the hands of his enemy, at the moment of death. Could we but put a name to his remains, or link them to one of the many battle narratives found in surviving literary sources, we could achieve a direct link to the human meaning of history.
A similar impulse drives the Tutmania that continues to sweep the West nearly a century after the recovery of Tutankhamun’s mummy. Tut is the rare case of an ancient king whose remains can be securely identified and matched with a historical narrative. As a result, specialists pore over these bones year after year, as the television cameras roll, displaying evidence of a chariot crash here, a club foot there, a blow to the head, a hippo attack. The physical marks of an active life, or of a violent death, convince us of a young man who really lived and died.
Someday, the sword victim of Amphipolis and his four companions may be the object of similarly fetishistic attention. Historical study is most intense when it centers on flesh-and-blood individuals. But absent flesh or blood, we who deal with ancient history can, on occasion, conjure with bones.